The problem of translation
Mme. Blavatsky and the Mahatmas are sometimes accused of assigning wrong meanings to the terms found in different philosophies. The accusations are meant to question their knowledge. However, neither Mme. Blavatsky claim to be scholars in other traditions. They have their own (secret) terms, probably from the Senzar, and when communicating with the public they had to choose known terms from different philosophies that could convey a similar meaning. In doing this, they frequently used the terms as where understood by the scholars of the time. This early scholarly understanding was in some instances shown to be incorrect.
For example, Mme. Blavatsky relates a vision of an incident supposed to have happened when studying in Tibet with Mahatma K.H.:
I was standing before Mah. K.H. near the old building taken down he was looking at, and as Master was not at home, I took to him a few sentences I was studying in Senzar in his sister’s room and asked him to tell me if I translated them correctly — and gave him a slip of paper with these sentences written in English. He took and read them, and correcting the interpretation read them over. . .
The Master himself recognizes that the use of translations for their terms is confusing to them:
Our mystic terms in their clumsy re-translation from the Sanskrit into English are as confusing to us as they are to you — especially to “M”. Unless in writing to you one of us takes his pen as an adept and uses it from the first word to the last, in this capacity he is quite as liable to “slips” as any other man.
In some occasions, they find it impossible to find appropriate terms. For example, when explaining about the nature of the sun:
Our terms are untranslatable; and without a good knowledge of our complete system (which cannot be given but to regular initiates) would suggest nothing definite to your perceptions but only be a source of confusion. . .
To tell you of what it does consist is idle, since I am unable to translate the words we use for it, and that no such matter exists (not in our planetary system, at any rate) — but in the sun.
Mme. Blavatsky also showed she faced this difficulty:
I make this difference because I do not know how to translate it in any other way. We have a word for it in the occult language, but it is impossible to translate it into English.
Hence, the Arahat secret doctrine on cosmogony admits but of one absolute, indestructible, eternal, and uncreated UNCONSCIOUSNESS (so to translate), of an element (the word being used for want of a better term) absolutely independent of everything else in the universe.
Let him remember that as all in this universe is contrast (I cannot translate it better) so the light of the Dhyan Chohans and their pure intelligence is contrasted by the “Ma-Mo Chohans” — and their destructive intelligence.
Thus, when we find mistakes in the writings of Mme. Blavatsky when using Sanskrit or other foreign languages, this does not mean her knowledge of the "trans-Himalayan" esoteric philosophy was incorrect, but only that her knowledge of some technical terms in other philosophies was imperfect or limited to what the scholars knew at the time:
I have never boasted of any knowledge of Sanskrit, and, when I came to India last, in 1879, knew very superficially the philosophies of the six schools of Brahmanism. I never pretended to teach Sanskrit or explain Occultism in that language. I claimed to know the esoteric philosophy of the trans-Himalayan Occultists and no more. What I knew again, was that the philosophy of the ancient Dwijas and Initiates did not, nor could it differ essentially from the esotericism of the “Wisdom-religion,” any more than ancient Zoroastrianism, Hermetic philosophy, or Chaldean Kabbala could do so. I have tried to prove it by rendering the technical terms used by the Tibetan Arhats of things and principles, as adopted in trans-Himalayan teaching (and which when given to Mr. Sinnett and others without their Sanskrit or European equivalents, remained to them unintelligible, as they would to all in India)—in terms used in Brahmanical philosophy. I may have failed to do so correctly, very likely I have, and made mistakes—I never claimed infallibility . . . In my writings in The Theosophist I have always consulted learned and (even not very learned) Sanskrit-speaking Brahmans, giving credit to every one of them for knowing the value of Sanskrit terms better than I did. The question then is not, whether I may or may not have made use of wrong Sanskrit terms, but whether the occult tenets expounded through me are the right ones—at any rate those of the “Aryan-Chaldeo-Tibetan doctrine” as we call the “universal Wisdom-religion.”
- Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Theosophical Glossary (Krotona, CA: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 295.
- Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 93B (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 454.
- Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 66 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 176.
- Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 46 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 129.
- Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 93B (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 320.
- Michael Gomes (transcriber), The Secret Doctrine Commentaries (The Hague: I.S.I.S. foundation, 2010), 162.
- Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. III (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1995), 423.
- Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 30 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 96.
- Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. VII (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1987), 347-348.